This interview is one of three conducted with party leaders ahead of the 2023 general elections. To read the others, click here.
Progressives United leader Julian Fraser is running solo this year as the only candidate on his party’s ticket.
However, earlier in the campaign season the 24-year District Three incumbent announced his support for the Progressive Virgin Islands Movement, and PVIM leader Ronnie Skelton endorsed Mr. Fraser’s campaign in return since the party is not running a District Three candidate.
Mr. Fraser is the former leader of the Virgin Islands Party. But after the VIP lost the 2015 election under his leadership, he was replaced by Andrew Fahie and went on to form PU.
The new party ran six candidates in the 2019 election, but Mr. Fraser was the only one of them who won a seat.
This year, Mr. Fraser is focusing his message largely on urging residents to vote out the VIP.
The following interview with Mr. Fraser was conducted, condensed and edited by Dana Kampa.
What are three accomplishments in your party’s record you feel reflects why you should be elected again?
I have been able to deliver to my people the opportunity to own their own land. These are young people we’re talking about, and we did it on a grand scale. It was probably bigger than anywhere else in the territory, when government decided to purchase 114 acres of land from the Georges family here in Sea Cows Bay and made it available to predominantly young individuals for the purposes of building their own homes. We bought it at market value and sold it to the people at a rate far below market value on favourable terms. The conditions were that government would provide infrastructure, including roads, retaining walls, electricity, water. And we did that. I got elected in 1999, and by 2003, when I ran for office, that transaction was completed.
You have a lengthy record in politics. In hindsight, what are two things you think your party could have done differently?
Progressives United has never been in a position to exact change. It did send a representative to the House of Assembly who did, in fact, have a significant impact on trying to bring some calm and remedies to what took place with the [Commission of Inquiry] and on April 28, 2022, [when then-Premier Andrew Fahie was arrested in Florida]. That is in the form of experience and a steady hand. I would have liked Progressives United to have returned some more candidates.
And with your previous party, the Virgin Islands Party?
When I was with that party from 2007 to 2011, we had the government. I think that caution was our biggest downfall. The leader was extra cautious, and he made sure that he kept a grip on things. Because of that grip, we were unable to build this country where we were capable.
Do you agree with the reform measures codified and promised in the Framework for Implementation of the Recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry Report and Other Reforms? Are there any reforms included in that framework you disagree with? If your party is elected to lead the government, would you continue the process toward completing those reforms as quickly as possible?
Of course, I disagree with suspending the Constitution and imposing direct rule. Whether the speaker of the House should be independent or continue to be appointed was considered. I think the framework came close to that but didn’t. I think he should be independent. The other recommendations, I have no problem with.
So if re-elected, you would be pushing to implement most of the reforms?
Were you surprised by the COI’s findings? If so, by what in particular?
I’m not surprised. As far as I’m concerned, the COI findings are a matter of tidying up. It’s a bureaucracy — things get lost or don’t happen as they should. It’s a mess. It’s a nightmare. Bureaucracy is a nightmare. It takes five times as long as the private sector does to do the same thing.
Do you think the COI had any value for the territory?
I think we could have done it differently and gotten the same results without making the territory look bad. But sometimes you have to embarrass someone to get them to do what you want.
One of the reforms was making the Register of Interests public. That was done, but with onerous restrictions on viewing it. Copies can’t be made, there is a high fee, and supervision is required. The governor has asked that the government reconsider these restrictions, and make the register fully public. Would you support lifting these restrictions? If not, why do you support the restrictions?
Is the purpose of publishing it mischievous? If I tell you there’s a register, and you want to know something about Julian Fraser, and I tell you to come into the office and look at the register, why is it that you need to bring your camera with you and take a photo of the page that has the information on it? What do you want it for? That’s the question. That’s the only problem that we have. If you want to know, come and take a look. Make an appointment. This is to avoid every man, woman and child off the street coming in just for malicious purposes. These are things that we can discuss, that we can come to a mutual understanding on.
Would you push for the territory to pursue independence, maintain the current arrangement, or find some other way forward?
Absolutely. I’ve been around a long time and saw my parents go through what I’m going through. If you had asked me this question years ago, I probably would have said I’m not interested. From what I’ve seen on the issue of self-determination, every man, woman and child in the Virgin Islands should gain the knowledge as to what it means and what they need to do in order to get there. We have to educate our people about the meaning and the benefits of being independent. If you look at our Caribbean brothers and sisters, Jamaica became independent six decades ago. Why is it that we should be sitting here thinking about whether or not we should go independent when they did decades ago?
Not a single one of those countries have looked back and said they want to become a colony once again. We have to first educate our people, and that should be part of our curriculum, to actually know what it means and what the benefits are, like direct negotiation with the United States.
Would you want to have a public referendum in the near future?
Absolutely. I will never advocate for the 13 members of the House of Assembly deciding on independence, cannabis, and all this stuff. It has to come from the people voicing their own feelings and opinions after they are very well versed on the topic.
In light of the ongoing constitutional review, how do you think the VI should go about defining belongership and residency?
I really don’t have a problem with the definition of it. If you ask me, I think we ought to get rid of this belongership thing. I never understood it. The only explanation I have for it is I think the local authorities wanted to have some control over who gets what and who does what. In other countries, you’re just a citizen. We’ve got citizenship, belongership, residency. Residency is fine. But belongership is a means of the local authorities — us guys in the House of Assembly — having some form of control over the movements and behaviours of the people. It’s crept up into being able to vote.
Do you believe the territory is shifting toward large-scale tourism with plans to bring in more cruise ships, provide direct mainland US flights, and potentially expand the Beef Island airport runway? Is the territory’s infrastructure prepared to handle increased demand, and is this the right direction for the sector?
As far as cruise ships are concerned, I think they’re good. I don’t think we need to be looking toward any further expansion. As you pointed out, our infrastructure is not in a position to deal with it. We have to invest in tourism attractions on the islands. The airport expansion is a must. I’m not backing down on that. Developing the tourism product is a must.
How would you work to mitigate the rising cost of living for residents?
Government has to engage in subsidies, whether it’s subsidising electricity or transportation for goods.
In 2012, Cabinet adopted a Climate Change Adaptation Policy. It included wide-ranging promises like implementing wetlands protection, passing environmental legislation, updating the building code, and passing Physical Planning regulations, to name a few. More than 10 years later, the great majority of those goals have not been met. Why? Do you agree with the goals laid out in the policy? What do you think should happen now with the policy?
The reason it hasn’t been addressed is because people don’t see it. All the things that are happening with rising tides, droughts, all of the climate change, people don’t acknowledge as really happening. The only way you’re going to get things done is through legislation and dedication on the part of government. Our governments, for the past decades, have a tradition of ignoring things like that, and the people don’t hold the government accountable.
As we know, multiple governments have refused to access the £300 million loan guarantee from the United Kingdom to facilitate hurricane recovery projects, and many of those projects have been delayed, including school repairs, the Halls of Justice, the West End ferry terminal, the National Emergency Operations Centre, derelict boat removal, the Ralph T. O’Neal Administration Complex, and others. Was it a mistake to refuse the loan guarantee?
Without question. It’s having an effect on the people’s morale and health.
How specifically would you work on financing the remaining projects?
I am not one of those who believe if you want something in life, you must wait until you save enough money to buy it when there are things called banks or lending institutions. That’s what they’re there for. Human beings are taught to take risks. All governments have taken risks, but the good thing is that we wouldn’t default on our debt.
Many roads are in terrible shape across the territory. Being as specific as possible, how would you fix them, and how would you fund that process? Why haven’t more substantial investments in repairs been made sooner?
Carelessness. I was told five weeks ago that a machine, a grinder, was coming to Sea Cows Bay to start taking out old asphalt on Drakes Highway. Government purchased an asphalt plant over two years ago now. Six months ago, they told me they had it tested and it was ready to go. One month later, they said their people called and it’s not up to standard, so they would do some adjustments. They first told me how expensive asphalt is and they couldn’t afford to buy it, so they wanted to produce their own.
This is where we’re at. When you leave from my office to go to town, you’re going to be dropping into potholes and dodging them. We have governments that are nonfunctional.
East End/Long Look still doesn’t have a sewerage system after decades of promises. What main challenges have held up progress, and what would you do to overcome them and ensure that the project gets done? How soon?
They have the money but don’t want to put the time into doing it. There is absolutely no explanation for why East End/Long Look does not have a sewerage system. I was a minister when that project began, and while I was in office we installed manholes and pipelines.
When I left office in 2003 and the new administration came in, they did nothing. It’s incompetence.
They were so fortunate to have gotten a free sewage treatment plant from Biwater. It hasn’t treated a bucket of sewage yet. It’s still sitting there. This administration that has a premier for that district representative couldn’t get that system completed. You’re telling me they deserve to be re-elected?
The incinerator in Pockwood Pond appears to still be offline, resulting in frequent fires in the landfill behind it. What needs to be done to bring it back online? How would you finance it, and on what timeline?
We need a new government. We need a new minister who is going to make sure it happens. Financing has not been the problem for us. We have the privilege and right to borrow from Social Security, up to 30 percent of the pension fund. The fund is at almost a billion dollars. Thirty percent of that is $300 million. What’s prohibited us from doing the things we need to do? There are many ways to finance fixing the incinerator. There is no desire to fix anything.
Slow internet speeds are another common issue. What would you do to help speed up internet territory-wide?
As a former minister for telecommunications, I don’t have to tell you that I have the tenacity to get this country what it needs. We had a monopoly that turned into a duopoly, where there was no intent to change anything, just to share the spoils. If internet is a problem, I’m capable of changing it.
The election has raised questions about the HOA’s unanimous decision in 2021 to greatly increase their retirement benefits so they get paid their salary for multiple years after leaving office. Why did you initially vote for the bill and would you reverse the decision?
I voted for the bill because the country is made up of three branches of government that are supposed to be separate but equal. When you compare their compensation packages, judges would have retirement packages that are through the roof. We worked within the framework that was given to us.
Now, the public reaction is something else. We see where members running for public office have categorically stated that when they get elected, they’re going to take it out. That’s a nice way to appease the voter. The question is, when you get there, will you do it? I’m only one person.
Freedom-of-information legislation has been promised by successive governments for more than 15 years. Why do you believe it hasn’t been passed yet? Do you support it, and if so, what would you do to push it through if elected?
I have no problem with freedom of information. It all depends on what you call freedom. You can look at the Register of Interests, but it’s not free enough for you. The people who are advocating for freedom, when they realise they are being part of it — journalists: You’re supposed to be in there too. So be careful. You want the freedom to speak to me? I want the freedom to know what you know. I’ve seen that in other legislation, so that’s why I say that to you.
Do you support campaign finance reform resulting in a law that requires transparency about who is funding political parties? Why hasn’t it been passed yet? If you support it, what would you do to push it through?
I support it very much. During the last election, Progressives United had a platform where every member should disclose their finances.
The premier proposed holding a public referendum on same-sex marriage. If elected, would you push for the referendum? By when?
Yes, I think that could go as rapidly as possible.
As noted by teachers and the current education minister, students throughout the territory are dealing with serious challenges, particularly with extreme bullying. What action would you take to better support and protect them?
Bullying has no place in any society, especially ours. We are too small to have that fester. We know where to go — parents. If you can’t discipline your child, then you have a problem. Parents have a habit of covering for their children, and denying, denying, denying. You need to come to grips with the fact your child is not a saint. Make no mistake, bullying has no place in our society.
Education, Youth Affairs and Sports Minister Sharie de Castro has said her ministry conducted a widespread review of schools’ needs in the territory. Would you utilise this research or conduct your own study? How would you support this work?
I don’t believe in reinventing the wheel if that research has been done.
Industry members in the fishing sector have long complained of overly complicated, expensive permitting systems that leave them at a disadvantage compared to neighbouring countries. What action would you take to address this?
When I was the minister of natural resources and labour, I went to Spain to witness the Virgin Islands becoming a party to the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas. We have certain rights to sell.
The National Health Insurance system is not financially self-supporting. What would you do to fix it?
The NHI is necessary. Before, the government used to send straight-up cash overseas. But the proper monitoring of the NHI isn’t being carried out. It might be a lack of legislation to do so. If we get that in place, we might be able to slam the brakes on it. Suffice to say, it is broken. I can’t go to the United States Virgin Islands today and get the same service as when it first started, because people are telling me they’re have difficulties getting paid.
You recently earned the endorsement of the PVIM and expressed mutual support if the party gains the majority. Why did you believe it was important to still run as the Progressives United chairman rather than joining the PVIM?
I think there are benefits to going into the House of Assembly as a political party as opposed to going as an individual or under somebody’s umbrella. I’ve been there and done that, and it has little appeal for me. I’m reassuring my constituents that I’m not going into the House as a loner. I’ve had the same discussions with the leader of the National Democratic Party and the Progressive Virgin Islands Movement that we should stand together with one objective: to get the Virgin Islands Party out of office.
As many candidates have already noted, the territory has been through a lot in recent years. Briefly, what do you believe makes your party the best to help move the territory forward?
I have no ties, no restrictions whatsoever. I’m not beholden to anyone. We’re going to do what is best for the territory. I’m fearless, and I’m prepared to do whatever it takes to move the country forward.
What else haven’t we covered that you believe it is important for voters to know before heading to the polls?
April 28, 2022. No one wants to touch it. That’s why we’re here, and the country is the way it is.